In many ways, Jordan Phillips is having a storybook NFL career.
Two years ago, the Miami Dolphins waived the defensive tackle less than three seasons after he was a second-round draft pick and the Buffalo Bills promptly picked him up on waivers.
To say Phillips has made the most of his second chance would be an understatement.
On the verge of becoming an unrestricted free agent, he stands to receive a substantial increase in salary.
Whether it will come from the Bills is uncertain, but there's little doubt Phillips will prosper when free agency begins.
The strongest part of his leverage comes from leading the Bills last season with a career-best 9.5 sacks, the second-highest total for a defensive tackle in the league in 2019 behind the 12.5 of Aaron Donald of the Los Angeles Rams. Phillips was tied for the team lead with 13 tackles for loss.
Another factor that should help Phillips' cause is that, after being a reserve for the first seven games behind rookie Ed Oliver, Phillips replaced the first-round draft pick as a starter and remained in the No. 1 role for the final nine games of the regular season and for the wild-card playoff loss against the Houston Texans. Oliver showed significant improvement through the last half of the season, yet Phillips performed well enough to keep the starting job.
Phillips had three sacks in the Bills' Oct. 6 victory at Tennessee and two in the Dec. 15 playoff-clinching win at Pittsburgh. The analytics website profootballfocus.com gives him an overall grade of 51.8, which ranks 153rd out of 197 defensive linemen in the league. His pass-rush grade of 60.5 ranks 94th among defensive linemen. Of Phillips' 583 snaps in 2019, 362 were in pass rush (putting him 40th among D-linemen) and 218 were against the run, according to PFF. He played 52.4% of the Bills' defensive snaps.
Spotrac.com projects Phillips' calculated market value at $18.6 million over three years, an average of $6.2 million per season.
Phillips has tweeted that he views himself as a top three defensive tackle, which likely would put his annual salary expectations at more than the Bills would be willing to pay. The top three defensive tackles all made more than $17 million last season.
“This is the only time I’ve been consistently on the field on third down as a pass rusher in my career and I took full advantage of the opportunity,” Phillips tweeted. “The proof is in the puddin you put my stats up against anybody this year I’m a top 3 DT.”
Phillips was chosen as a fourth alternate to the Pro Bowl and then not selected to the Associated Press All-Pro team, prompting him to tweet that he gets "0 respect lol."
Last March, after having 19 tackles (including two for loss) in 12 games with the Bills, Phillips received a one-year contract worth $4.5 million. That included a $2 million signing bonus, $250,000 in workout bonus, and $2.25 million in base salary.
"I thought Jordan really stepped his game up this year on the field, but also bringing some young guys along," General Manager Brandon Beane told reporters during his season-wrap-up news conference. "I thought he was good with Ed and just showing him some different things."
The GM said he thought Phillips' presence was "the best thing that happened" for Oliver's development because rather than sulking, he "picked up his game."
Beane, who said he thinks Phillips "still has room to grow," didn't make it sound as if the Bills would be quick to give Phillips a new deal. Generally, teams that wish to extend player contracts tend to do so before the offseason.
The Bills appear to be willing to wait to see what sort of free agency offers Phillips receives and then proceed accordingly. They could match or surpass the best proposal he receives, assuming Phillips is willing to return.
"He had a career-year sack production," Beane said. "So he has earned the right to see what his value is on the market and we’ll just have to see where that goes."
The Bills could find help in the open market. One obvious place to start is Carolina, because it frequently factors in the Bills' player signings and coach hires. Vernon Butler, a tackle the Panthers drafted in 2016 (McDermott's final season as their defensive coordinator and Beane's last as their assistant GM), is due to become a free agent.
The 6-foot-4-inch, 330-pound Butler was a backup until last season, when he finally broke into the starting lineup. He proved himself worthy of the promotion with career-best statistics: 32 tackles, including seven for loss, along with six sacks and eight quarterback hits. With a new coaching staff in Carolina, after the team replaced Ron Rivera with Matt Rhule, the door could be open for Butler to move on.
Another possibility could be the New Orleans Saints' David Onyemata, who, like Butler, broke into the starting lineup in 2019. He had a solid year with 10 QB hits and three sacks. One potential drawback, given the Bills' inclination to find players minus off-field baggage, is that he missed a game because of an offseason arrest for marijuana possession.
A potential free agent who could command a salary at the higher end of the scale is A'Shawn Robinson of the Detroit Lions. In 13 games, Robinson finished with 40 tackles, with three tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, a pair of quarterback hits and three pass defenses.
However, if the Bills would be willing to pay a premium for another tackle, they might be better off extending themselves to retain Phillips.